Autumn by Ali Smith: A review

I finished this book a couple of days ago but just couldn't immediately think what to say about it in a review. I wasn't even sure how I felt about it. It really was unlike anything I had ever read before. 

After giving it much thought - and there truly is a lot to think about here - I came to the conclusion that the book is brilliant. The more I thought about it the more I liked it. In that, I found myself in agreement with the Man Booker Prize committee which shortlisted the book for 2017.

Autumn is the first in a planned series of four books named after the seasons, but you would be wrong to think of the books as related to Earth's seasons. Instead, it would seem that they will be more about the seasons of our lives, what time is and how we experience it. This book explores pop culture and its influence on our lives and how the present is informed by the past. I'm once again reminded of William Faulkner's quote from Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

The time of this novel is the present in England, post-Brexit election. The main character, Elisabeth (with an s) and her acquaintances are appalled by the implications of the election. Their distress is shown in their Google searches about moving to Scotland or to Ireland, in hopes that those countries that voted to stay in the E.U. will find a way to do so. They are well and truly disgusted by the politics of the times. At one point, there is a soliloquy expressing Elisabeth's thoughts which could speak for many of us.
I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful.

The other main character in Autumn is Daniel. In the present, he is one hundred and one years old and is in a care home where he is thought to be near death. He is either in a coma or asleep - it isn't entirely clear which.

Twenty years earlier, Elisabeth and her mother had moved in next door to Daniel. Elisabeth was a little girl at the time, but she struck up a friendship with Daniel. They spent hours together, walking around the neighborhood or just sitting and talking. Daniel introduced the child to Pop Art and to the work of the artist Pauline Boty. Their conversations about art were to have a long-term influence on Elisabeth, who later studied the history of art in college and wrote her dissertation on the work of Boty.  

Although Elisabeth lost track of Daniel in the intervening years, he was always a part of her unconscious. At one point her boyfriend asked her who this Daniel was that she always talked to in her sleep. 

When she learned that Daniel was in the care home, Elisabeth started visiting him there, and even though he was in a coma/asleep she would read to him. It seemed the thing to do, because back when their friendship was new, he would always greet her with the question, "What are you reading?"
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we're not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
This is a book that defies summing up. Just let me say that after giving it some thought, my considered opinion is that it is an extraordinarily inventive celebration of language and friendship and life and that I look forward to Ali Smith's next "season."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


  1. OK, thanks! I have been considering reading this. Now I will.

    1. I think you will find it interesting. Not an easy read but worth the effort.

  2. Hmm...I'm glad you found this book worth reflecting over and worth the read. That first quote is very powerful.


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